Understanding Ultra-Processing of Our Food

December 18, 2022

Understanding "Ultra-processing" of Our Food

Now that we know that 80% of us eat at least 20% of our food in "ultra-processed form", which increases the rate of cognitive decline by 25%, it becomes incumbent on us to learn how we can change that. We need to understand processing and what that means. This new construct has emerged in the last decade and is now gaining momentum. Instead of focusing on individual ingredients like protein, fat, and carbs, we look at the whole product and how it has been altered from the original ingredients used to make it. What is processing?

Start with that. Unprocessed food is picked by you from the tree, or dug up from the garden. Then you eat it as is. The vegetable aisle at the grocery store will do. Minimal processing is the simplest next step. Remove the inedible parts. With grains, knock off the hull. With apples, cut out the seeds in the core and the stem.

Secondary processing includes grinding up a grain into a powder we call flour and then baking it. You might include freezing, but then there are those who will argue that freshly frozen vegetables capture their peak nutrient value, so freezing isn't so bad for vegetables. But popsicles? Fermentation adds wonderful probiotic effects but is also on the secondary processing spectrum. Frying vegetables? Now you are cooking at high heat and adding fat to the food.

The third stage turns the grains into edible products. Baking, frying, microwaving....and all those raise new questions. What used to be three groups has now been made into four.

The NOVA classification now groups foods into those four categories. The third category, processed foods, were defined as “Generally produced to be consumed as part of meals or dishes or may be used together with ultra-processed products to replace food-based freshly prepared dishes and meals.” Typical foods described for this category were canned or bottled vegetables and legumes preserved in brine; peeled or sliced fruits preserved in syrup; canned whole or pieces of fish preserved in oil; salted nuts; unreconstituted processed meats such as ham, ham bacon, and smoked fish; and cheese. (Sounds a lot like what we eat every day.)

There there is category 4, "ultra-processed." Even Category 4 has evolved over the last decade through 4 stages. Stage 1: The first definition alludes mainly to the use of both food additives and salt in food products. Stage 2: The second introduces the putative impact of ultra-processed foods on accessibility, convenience, and palatability of ultra-processed foods. Subsequently, the definitions become longer and include more elements. Stage 3: The third definition built on previous definitions but introduced 2 new angles. One is the nonavailability of ingredients used in ultra-processed foods from retail outlets such as supermarkets, and the second introduces food additives as the most widely used ingredients, in numerical terms, in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods. 

The next definition now introduces the role of food fortification as a defining element of ultra-processed foods. Further definitions introduce new elements such as the importance of foods synthesized in a laboratory, based on organic materials such as oil- and coal-based additives and flavoring compounds, a specification for the minimal number of ingredients to be found in these foods, and then an emphasis on the inclusion of salt, sugars, oils, and fats as a starting point for defining ultra-processed foods.

That is what brings us today to what we buy in the grocery store. Over 60% of American calories come from ultra-processed foods. They are in packages, with long shelf life, with more than 5 ingredients including sugar, fat, preservatives and many things you can't pronounce. You can see for yourself. Go to your pantry and read the labels just for the number of ingredients. If there are more than 5, it meets the simplest criteria for Category 4, "Ultra-processed". It isn't original food anymore. There is something about that mix of additives that is meant to be preserving and enhancing the food product to increase its shelf life, its taste, its addictive qualities....that's killing us.

www.What will Work for me. I picked up an Atkins bar I had on my shelf. Good for me? Right? Keto, after all!! Hmmm. Just 2 grams net carbs. But I counted. 13 ingredients. Do you know what vegetable glycerin, polydextrose, maltilol, sodium caseinate, soy lecithin, sodium metabisulfate, and "natural flavorings" are? Me neither. But that's more than 5 things I can't buy in the store. I thought it was a coconut bar with a shell of chocolate. It qualifies as ultra-processed. My takeaway is that if it comes in a package of any kind, and has any sugar, fat, salt, flavoring, color or preservative, it flunks. And 10 minutes in my pantry: everything flunked. Bummer.

References: Healthline, BMJ Open, Current Dev Nutrition, Educhange

Pop Quiz

1. Name three unprocessed foods you ate today? Answer: Avocado, lettuce, ...... (couldn't get to three)......

2. Name three minimally processed foods you ate today? Answer: Boiled egg......no, it was deviled egg with Mayo and Sriracha sauce.......(14 and 27 ingredients on the label). My answer...Zero

3. Can you define what ultra-processing means? Answer: Designed to have a long shelf life, with sugar, salt, fat and multiple secondary colorings, flavorings, preservatives, with more than 5 added ingredients,

4. What is the impact of your eating ultra-processed foods? Answer: 25% faster cognitive decline than those who eat less than 20% of their calories from such foods.

5. Average folks eat how much ultra-processed foods? Answer: > 60% of calories.